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Friends' News

It was Labor Day 2011 at 7:45 in the evening when Harpeth River State Park Rangers got the call saying the historic Montgomery Bell Tunnel was on fire. When Rangers arrived, two gentlemen who’d been watching the flames from a distance reported the fire had been raging since 6:30 PM.

glowing embers of tunnel fire

How does a solid stone tunnel burn? During the spring of 2010, thirteen inches of rain inundated the Harpeth River Valley flooding homes and businesses and putting the 200-year-old tunnel underwater. The raging Harpeth waters ripped huge trees and brush from its banks, wedging the drifting wood in Bell’s Tunnel. Eighteen months later the floodwaters had receded, the driftwood was now dry and still crammed tightly in the tunnel, creating a dangerous fire threat.

On that 2011 Labor Day, something or somebody ignited the accumulated dry wood, and a strong draft rushing through the tunnel intensified the roaring flames. Bystanders could hear the hissing & popping of moisture trapped in the porous limestone that expanded fissures in the rock and loosened massive layers of stone that dropped from the tunnel ceiling with thunderous booms. Witnesses say the roar of the inferno was deafening & the intensity of the heat was so searing it could be felt a football field away.


By midnight, firemen had quelled the flames, and road department engineers assessed the damage to the county highway bridge over the intake side of the tunnel. The fire had cut off access to residents living north of the tunnel bridge, but by daybreak, officials pronounced the steel bridge safe to travel.

morning after the fire

Neighbors have long deemed the fire to be arson, but Parks Division investigators were

never able to establish a cause. Now, massive layers of fire-loosened limestone lay on the floor of the famous 1820’s-era tunnel, obstructing access and causing park management to post signs designating the tunnel as unsafe to enter. The well-engineered river diversion tunnel had remained largely unscathed by 200 years of flooding, freezing, and thawing, but the popular park attraction couldn’t withstand the fierce flames of undetermined origins.

today's collapsed ceiling

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Harpeth River State Park Manager Bill Morton was patrolling the parking lot at the Harris-Street Take Out on Labor Day when an anxious woman flagged him down. She reported her 13-year-old twin boys were paddling down the Harpeth in separate kayaks and were 2 ½ hours late for arrival at their Harris-Street pick up point.

Ranger Lisa Householder scoured park ramps and parking lots for signs of the boys and Morton drove down Cedar Hill Rd. to check downstream bridges but found no signs of the twins or their kayaks. Morton calculated the brothers had likely been distracted as they passed the big yellow sign announcing “LAST PULL OUT“ at Harris-Street Bridge and inadvertently paddled past where they were to be picked up.

To search down river, the Rangers launched the Park’s newly acquired motorized jet kayak and with Ranger Jacob Hardin at the controls, the speedy kayak raced downstream in search of the missing twins.

The Kingston Springs Fire Dept answered a 911 call and joined the search putting their drone in the air to scan the river. Although the twins had a 2½ hour lead on Hardin, his motorized kayak caught-up with the lost boys in just 30 minutes. Hardin called Morton to report he’d located the boys some 4 miles downriver from the Last Pull Out. The Fire Dept drone captured the moment Hardin tied the twins’ kayaks to his and towed the boys upstream to the Stringfellow Bridge where firemen loaded the twins and 3 kayaks on to the fire engine and trucked all back to the Harris Street Bridge for a reunion with the twins’ mom.

Friends of Harpeth River State Park purchased the motorized Mokai ES-Kape Kayak and donated the boat to the Park for use as a rescue vessel. The Mokai Kayak can go 60 miles on 4 gallons of gasoline at speeds of 20 MPH. The kayak is 12 feel long, weighs 224 lbs. and is powered by a 9.5 HP Kohler engine hooked to a jet drive system that functions well on the sometimes-shallow waters of the Harpeth.


Your donations and volunteerism allow the Friends group to make these kinds of valuable contributions to support Park safety, activities, education, and conservation. We hope you may be inspired to donate and/or get involved.

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These days, outdoor pursuits are often taken to the max. Hiking the Appalachian Trail for six months. Summiting Everest. Week-long whitewater rafting adventures. At least this is true if your eyes scroll the social feeds with any frequency.

What if we took ‘the scroll’ to the trail? Walk a few feet, then a few more. Perhaps strolling instead of scrolling? John Muir once said, “the mountains are calling and I must go.” He was also a proponent of leisurely nature walks, taking time to observe your surroundings as you meander. With that in mind, this year I'm determined not to miss the thriving summer meadows filled with milkweed and thistle, and native plants taller than me.

The Summer Solstice has given us the peak hours of daylight we’ll see until next year. Now is the time to visit the meadows of Harpeth River State Park to see what you may find. I'll visit the paths at the Gossett Tract and Hidden Lake over the coming week with hopes of finding images like the ones below from previous years' walks.

What is your favorite moment visiting Harpeth River State Park?

What do you hope to see?

We hope you'll share here in the comments. Or, take a scroll to our Facebook or Instagram to share your experience.

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